How Being Politic Kills the Politician
By A.D. Freudenheim  

22 February 2004

To judge by his recent interview with Tim Russert, President Bush is extremely unintellectual and (to put it politely) un-smart. For those who watched him, or even those merely reading the transcript, it will be apparent that it is a great challenge for Mr. Bush to string together a series of verbs and subjects into a coherent sentence (let alone one that follows standard rules of grammar). Perhaps it will console the President and his advisers to know that Mr. Bush is not alone in being made to look less-than-perfect merely by opening his mouth in front of a camera. The debate among Democratic primary candidates held last Sunday, 15 February, at Marquette University in Wisconsin, cast into sharp relief the dangers of public speaking even among those whose intellect rivals or exceeds that of Mr. Bush.[1]

As has been the case in all of the debates so far, Senator John Kerry, the increasingly-likely Democratic nominee, appeared weak and uncertain, largely due to his desire to be politic at all times. Senator John Edwards, nipping at Kerry’s heels, was more effective, and knew how to take advantage of Kerry’s penchant for long-winded answers – but also suffered from the ideological confusion that naturally evolves from verbal diarrhea. Governor Howard Dean and Representative Dennis Kucinich were sometimes more direct. Charmingly, the Reverend Al Sharpton stole much of the thunder (and laugh lines) from everyone else, not only by being direct in his answers, but by disarmingly acknowledging that some things are just plain hard to say – and yet must be said.

When asked by debate panelist Lester Holt about gay marriage, and how Kerry would vote on a Constitutional amendment that might define marriage as a monogamous, heterosexual union – would he vote yes, in support of an amendment, or no, against an amendment – the senator replied:

Well, it depends on the terminology, because it depends on what it does with respect to civil unions and partnership rights. About the rights, I believe that it is important in America not to discriminate with respect to rights. I, personally, believe that marriage is between a man and a woman. But I also believe that we ought to be able to not let marriage and the concept get in the way of respecting the rights of people to be able to visit a partner in a hospital, to be able to pass on property, to be able to live under the equal protection clause of the United States. And the question is whether or not that can be put in the Constitution. We will see what will happen. But my personal opinion has been – is today that marriage is between a man and a woman. I’m for civil union. I’m for partnership rights and the full measure of nondiscrimination within those rights.

This was clearly not a “yes” or “no” answer to a yes-or-no question, so Holt followed-up with:

Holt: So on a constitutional amendment defining marriage between a man and a woman, your vote would be?
Kerry: Well, it depends. Not a federal one. You're talking about federal or state? I mean, there's a difference between the two. I believe the states have a right to make up their own mind, and it ought to be left up to each state individually, period.

This is a major social and political issue, and one on which any Democratic candidate is going to face serious scrutiny; Kerry’s desire not to answer the question was surely acute and, therefore, his “measured” answer was probably the one that seemed most justifiable at the time. Yet this is a significant issue, and for those in the audience – sitting at Marquette, watching on television, or even reading subsequent news coverage of the debates – Kerry’s answer resolved nothing. If one’s inclination is to oppose gay marriage, Kerry’s answer was hardly reassuring; if one believes that the definition of marriage is broader than heterosexual unions, and wants to support a candidate who will, in turn, support gay marriage, Kerry’s response likewise settled nothing.

Similarly, when Kerry was asked about whether he feels any responsibility for the war in Iraq because he voted to authorize President Bush’s actions, he got bogged down in an over-explanation:

This is one of the reasons why I am so intent on beating George Bush and why I believe I will beat George Bush, because one of the lessons that I learned – when I was an instrument of American foreign policy, I was that cutting-edge instrument. I carried that M- 16. I know what it’s like to try to choose between friend and foe in a foreign country when you’re carrying out the policy of your nation. And I know what it’s like when you lose the consent and the legitimacy of that war. And that is why I said specifically on the floor of the Senate that what I was voting for was the process the president promised. There was a right way to do this and there was a wrong way to do it. And the president chose the wrong way because he turned his back on his own pledge to build a legitimate international coalition, to exhaust the remedies of the United Nations in the inspections and to go to war as a matter of last resort. Last resort means something to me. Obviously, it doesn’t mean something to this president. I think it means something to the American people. And the great burden of the commander in chief is to be able to look into the eyes of any parent or loved one and say to them, “I did everything in my power to prevent the loss of your son and daughter, but we had to do what we had to do because of the imminency [sic] of the threat and the nature of our security.” I don’t think the president passes that test.

And so, the inevitable follow-up question:

Craig Gilbert: But what about you? I mean, let me repeat the question. Do you have any degree of responsibility having voted to give him the authority to go to war?
Kerry: The president had the authority to do what he was going to do without the vote of the United States Congress. President Clinton went to Kosovo without the Congress. President Clinton went to Haiti without the Congress. That’s why we have a War Powers Act. What we did was vote with one voice of the United States Congress for a process. And remember, until the Congress asserted itself, this president wasn’t intending to go to the United Nations. In fact, it was Jim Baker and Brent Scowcroft and others and the Congress who got him to agree to a specific process. The process was to build a legitimate international coalition, go through the inspections process and go to war as a last resort. He didn’t do it. My regret is not the vote. It was appropriate to stand up to Saddam Hussein. There was a right way to do it, a wrong way to do it. My regret is this president chose the wrong way, rushed to war, is now spending billions of American taxpayers’ dollars that we didn’t need to spend this way had he built a legitimate coalition, and has put our troops at greater risk.

Again, Kerry failed to address a simple question simply. Senator Edwards’ response to the same question:

Gilbert: You cast the same vote, Senator Edwards, is that the way you see it?
Edwards: That’s the longest answer I ever heard to a yes or no question [referring to Kerry]. The answer to your question is of course. We all accept responsibility for what we did. I did what I believed was right. I took it very, very seriously. I also said at the same time that it was critical when we got to this stage that America not be doing this alone. The president is doing it alone. And the result is what we see happening to our young men and women right now. We need to take a dramatic course. We will take a dramatic course. And by the way, Senator Kerry just said he will beat George Bush; not so fast, John Kerry. We’re going to have an election here in Wisconsin this Tuesday. And we’ve got a whole group of primaries coming up. And I, for one, intend to fight with everything I’ve got for every one of those votes. And back to your question. What we will do, when I’m president of the United States, is we will change this course. We will bring in the rest of the world; we will internationalize this effort. We will bring NATO in to provide security. For example, we could put NATO today in charge of the Saudi Arabian border, the Iranian border, allow us to concentrate on the Sunni Triangle, where so much of the violence has been occurring. We do need to change course. And ultimately, we have to get on a real timetable for the Iraqis to govern themselves and provide for their own security.

Not much better in terms of overall length, but Edwards answered the question with a direct “of course,” followed by commentary, an improvement on Kerry’s rambling inability to say anything meaningful.

Contrast these responses with those of Mr. Kucinich and Reverend Sharpton to a variety of questions. On whether or not President Bush “knowingly lied” about the evidence concerning Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, Kucinich first answered the question with an explanation of how he thinks the Bush administration lied, and followed-up with “The president lied to the American people” when a clarification was requested. Asked the same question, Reverend Sharpton said:

Well, first of all, I think that if he didn't know he was lying and was lying, that's even worse. Clearly, he lied. Now if he is an unconscious liar, and doesn't realize when he's lying, then we're really in trouble. Because, absolutely, it was a lie. They said they knew the weapons were there. He had members of the administration say they knew where the weapons were. So we're not just talking about something passing here. We're talking about 500 lives. We're talking about billions of dollars. So I hope he knew he was lying, because if he didn't, and just went in some kind of crazy, psychological breakdown, then we are really in trouble. Clearly, you know, I'm a minister. Why do people lie? Because they're liars. He lied in Florida; he's lied several times. I believe he lied in Iraq.

Sharpton then went on to discuss some of the facts and broader circumstances under which he believes Mr. Bush lied – as clearly and articulately as any of the other candidates – without losing his sense of humor or the value of a direct answer. Asked about American jobs lost under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Sharpton was, again, direct:

Holt: But back to my original question: Can you bring those jobs back, and can you be specific as how you would bring them back beyond canceling NAFTA?
Sharpton: I think we bring the jobs back, one, by canceling NAFTA; two, by creating manufacturing jobs; three – which would save those corporations where they can begin hiring people back – three, by creating jobs. I’ve proposed throughout this campaign a $250 billion- a-year infrastructure redevelopment plan: Rebuild highways, roadways, bridges, tunnels in the name of homeland security. Rebuild the ports. I think if you create jobs, if you cut off these trade agreements and you bring these manufacturing companies back, you can bring some of those workers back. But I think you cannot do it without an unequivocal end to these free trade agreements that have exported American jobs and that have put laborers around the world at below human rights standards.

The word “unequivocal” is not often used in politics, and yet here it is, from the mouth of Reverend Sharpton no less. How sad it is that such direct language – the direct expression of ideas and beliefs – is so much of the province of the candidates least likely to any electoral success at all, a fact only reinforced by Ralph Nader’s decision today to enter the 2004 presidential race as well. It seems that politics has a nasty habit of killing the most effective politicians. A few, a rare few, survive, such as Bill Clinton, who was usually politic in his answers, but whose evident empathy aided the emphasis with which he addressed any subject; for Clinton, it always looked like it hurt to answer. Kerry shows no such emotion.

As the leading Democratic candidate, Senator Kerry has a lot going for him, not least a significant level of backing from the party itself. If he is going to face down Mr. Bush, he needs to do more than be politic and play politics: Kerry must pick up the mantle of emotion that made Howard Dean’s campaign so (initially) compelling, and be willing to meet Mr. Bush not only in a battle of wits but in a war of clear ideas. Mr. Bush’s advantage is beyond incumbency – it is the anti-intellectual sense that he’s a “straight talker.” His NBC interview shows that he is anything but that. Still, there seems to be a ladder of achievement that politicians live on, and their height and position on the ladder correlates rather precisely with the quality and clarity of their answers to any question, large or small: the higher up they are, the weaker and less direct their responses become. Reverend Sharpton would probably make an awful president for any number of reasons, and Mr. Kucinich’s policies might be equally disastrous, never mind that neither candidate is likely to win an election. That said, there is something deeply appealing about hearing them “speak truth to power,” as the Reverend might put it. Senator Kerry’s campaign might be more successful if he stepped down the political ladder a rung or two, and allowed himself, and the American electorate, to hear him at his straight-talking best.

[1] All candidate quotes are taken from the official transcript for "The Wisconsin Presidential Debate 2004," and are to be credited to TODAY'S TMJ4. The transcript can be found at:   Copyright 2004, by A.D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired! Contact A. D. Freudenheim for further information.
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